I recently sold my '87 Dodge W150 pickup, and I don't miss it at all.

Oh, I liked it when I bought it a year earlier, because it was a funky Power Ram 4x4, built just a few years after
Sharp-edged styling of fancier Ram pickups is used on teh simple Tradesman 1500. Photo by Tom Berg.
Sharp-edged styling of fancier Ram pickups is used on teh simple Tradesman 1500. Photo by Tom Berg.
Chrysler dropped the Power Wagon name. According to the owner's manual, its 318 V-8 made all of 130 horsepower. Still, it was a tough old beast. I once used it to haul a ton of ¾-inch stone, and its "half-ton" leaf springs hardly sagged.

I got a kick out of driving it around our suburban lot, following the Ram's Head ornament on the nose. (Dodge had stopped using those by '87 -- something about the feds not wanting pedestrians gored -- but the previous owner had bought one and bolted it onto the hood.) I'd shift into 4-High when the grass was wet and the underlying clay had turned mushy, and a few times I took it through the ditch down by the road just for the fun of it, and it never got stuck. But it had some rust that I didn't get around to fixing, and was noisy and drafty at highway speeds, and that got old.

Worlds apart

About the time the old truck's appeal was abating, the Ram Truck people dropped a new Tradesman 1500 pickup on my driveway to test. Talk about worlds apart! The 2011 truck was so smooth and quiet and comfortable that I could hardly believe it came from the same manufacturer, even if it was 24 years newer. And it was fast, thanks to its 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that was a corral for 390 horses that wanted to run. They were all harnessed to a silky 6-speed automatic transmission that kept them controlled and mannerly.

Mind you, the Tradesman is no sissified pseudo-limo. This is work truck, with a rubber floor that you can drag mud or spill coffee on and not worry about cleaning up until the weekend, if then, plus dirt-proof vinyl seats that get a little hot, but so what? They are manual windows that you can crank up when it starts raining without having to find the keys to switch on the ignition, with no motors to wear out. Nice and simple.

It had a roomy and quiet two-door regular cab with space behind the seats for packages and tools and maybe a duffel or two. The 8-foot bed with a sprayed-in liner could haul 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood or wallboard with the tailgate closed. You can secure cargo to the floor with four well-placed tie-down points. The tailgate is countersprung and takes just a few pounds of lift to raise. I appreciated that when I was standing there with a heavy box that I wanted to place in the bed.

This truck was a 4x4, and I could put her into 4-High and 4-Low and back into 2-High by turning a switch on the dash, and it worked every time. Of course it's shift-on-the-fly in High, but needs to come to a stop when going into or out of Low. (My old Power Ram had the old-fashioned transfer-case lever on the floor -- so did a '79 F-150 I once owned -- and I had to shut off their engines to avoid gear clashing in the TC when shifting into Low range.) Don't need four-wheel drive? The Tradesman can be had with two-wheel drive, too.

On the highway

I took the Tradesman on a couple of highway trips and liked the way it rode. It was firm, with just a little jouncing over bumps, as the bed was empty and the coil springs over the rear axles (an exclusive in this class) are tuned for loads. I used the cruise control, which felt strange given the simplicity of the rest of the truck, and ran the air conditioner, which felt nice on a warm day.

The information center near the speedometer and tach can display all kinds of numbers, but I didn't stray far from the mpg readout, which climbed from 17 to 18 after some 70-mph cruising -- not bad with the gutsy Hemi.

Styling is not a priority on a work truck, but the Tradesman gets the sharp-edged body lines of other Rams, which gave it a speedy yet purposeful look. The chrome grille in the forward-leaning nose was a classy touch, where dull gray or black has become common on some competitors. The dyed-in-denims Dodge guy will be proud of this, I think.

Oops -- make him a Ram man. A couple of years ago Chrysler split off the Ram brand, which gave product planners the freedom to set up commercial vehicles they lacked while part of the Dodge Division. That's how executives explained this corporate change at a press conference last year. However, state motor vehicle officials didn't get the word, because Rams still register as Dodges -- at least they do in Ohio, where I live -- and are still sold by Dodge dealers.

Fun to drive

But I can't say enough about how neat the Tradesman is to drive. Did I say it's fast? You want to pass something on a two-lane and there's sufficient room, you get on the gas and go, and you don't need every horse under the hood to do it. The autotranny works smoothly, and a thumb switch on the selector lever lets you up- and downshift in Manual mode if you're in the mood. Like me, you'll probably leave it alone after a while, because the tranny knows what it's doing, though the manual capability would be handy for long, steep up- or downgrades, especially while towing a trailer.

Officially, that's why the Hemi's there -- to tow and haul heavy loads -- so there's no lesser V-8 or V-6 engine offered with the Tradesman. There are some options, such an electric brake controller, power windows, remote-control side-view mirrors and cloth-covered seats, but that's pretty much it. Like I said, this is a work truck, but is definitely a case of work being fun.

It was such fun that I became totally dissatisfied with my ol' Power Ram, so I put it on eBay and sold it to a guy who liked the looks of old Dodge pickups and wanted something to putz around on. Now I'm lacking a pickup. Do you think I could put a new Tradesman on my expense account?

From the January 2012 issue of HDT.